American Hubris on the UK and Northern Ireland

This morning’s Financial Times (17 March 2021) notes that the ‘US fires warning shot at Johnson on Northern Ireland’. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to hold St. Patrick’s day talks with Irish premier Micheál Martin. President Biden reminds the world that he is Irish and will oppose any US-UK trade deal unless UK negotiations with the EU uphold terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. 

I am an American, and generally support President Biden, who has had remarkable accomplishments in his early days in office. But I have lived and worked in the UK, and England specifically, since 2002. I have long warned my colleagues in Britain – even though they already know this – that when Americans come to the UK, they start giving advice the moment they get off the plane. Joe Biden has not even gotten off a plane and – even before he was elected – has been giving advice or one might say orders to the UK on how to resolve trade issues with the EU. 

Puck’s “The Bull in the China Shop” 1898

There is something endearing about American hubris to think they can advise nations on matters on which they know far too little. I’ve yet to hear any responsible voice in the UK opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the complexity of the relationships between multiple stakeholders in the UK, and the nation of Northern Island and other nations and regions of the UK, and the EU and its member states, and Ireland in particular, are seriously difficult to resolve. For any US public official to make such facile statements that specifically threaten the UK is simply foolish. 

President Biden and the US State Department need to be a bit more modest, better informed and more balanced before weighing in on this issue. Joe Biden may think he is Irish, but is acting like a proverbial bull in a china shop. Could he ask what the US can do to help ensure that these negotiations are resolved in a way that is fair – if not a win-win – to all parties and preserves the peace agreement? 

Addendum

Press coverage following President Biden’s meeting with Ireland’s PM suggested that the US took a more balanced approach, arguing that “the UK and the EU must ‘move forward with a positive relationship’ on the Northern Irish protocol” (Williams, A., and Noonan, L., ‘Irish Premier Tells Biden EU and UK Must Back Good Friday Pact’, Financial Times, 18 March 2021: 4). This sounds like a more modest request.

Afterword

Later, coverage of President Biden’s administration seemed to have thrown gasoline on the fires in Northern Ireland by furthering the impression that ‘the Irish’ Biden and events were favouring the nationalists v the unionists. Later the administration said they ‘join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.’ My hope is they keep that message front and centre and stop interfering with a situation they do not seem to understand. Do no harm.

Update: Here he goes again: an editorial following Biden’s comments around the G7 Conference in Cornwall in The Telegraph that also makes this point about his lack of understanding of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland politics: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/06/10/joe-biden-doesnt-understand-northern-ireland/?li_source=LI&li_medium=liftigniter-onward-journey&fbclid=IwAR0_RAluAGuiQ2joGKZw6LSC5WGrwaFfNTMcEEw7er6tXJ4j7S7M5qBDp8U

Thanks to the Consumer Forum for Communications and Its Chair, Roger Darlington

The Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) has been an “informal forum hosted by Ofcom, for consumer representation to share information and views with each other , and with people who formulate and implement communications politics that affect consumers.” With announcements of new champions for communication consumers in the news, the CFC will no longer be hosted by Ofcom, but it might continue at least in the short -term as it is largely supported by the voluntary contributions of members’ time and expertise, at least until new consumer advocates are concretely launched.

I’ve had the pleasure of participating in the forum since I returned to Britain in July of last year, and have found it to be an inspiring group of committed consumer advocates, representing the various groups of consumers from the general public to more specialised constituencies, such as blind and disabled users of telecommunications, who use British Sign Language as a first language. Forum participants essentially share their observations about developments across the UK and worldwide to raise issues of importance to Ofcom, the industry, and all concerned about supporting the future of communication, telecommunication, and increasingly digital media and communication.

Yesterday, I attended their last meeting under the auspices of Ofcom, and wanted to thank Ofcom for supporting the CFC for many years, but particularly thank the most recent chair, my colleague Roger Darlington, who has been a champion for online child safety before I ever met him, and has chaired a wide array of other public interest groups. He has a blog called ‘Roger Darlington’s World‘, which would be of value to anyone with a serious interest in consumers. Yesterday, Roger completed his 19th meeting as chair over four and one half years.

So let me join all the participants of the CFC and Ofcom in thanking Roger for his service to the forum and consumers of communication. His colleague, Claire Milne, a Visiting Senior Fellow in Media and Communications at LSE, has agreed to shepherd the forum into the next phase of its existence, with all of us hoping that the need for consumer advocates will disappear in the foreseeable future. Best wishes to Roger, Claire, and all the varied categories of consumer (producers) of communication. Much work remains to be done.

Ofcom thanks Roger Darlington for his service as chair of CFC, June 2019

Brexit: A Response from the UK by Richard Collins

In response to my blog about Brexit, Richard Collins sent me the following, originally as a personal email message. Since Richard does not have a blog, I’ve asked and received his permission to post his thoughts here:

“I am surprised by the result, it is momentous and intimidating. But, in fact, I voted for Brexit – as the least worst of unattractive alternatives. Briefly, economics points to remain; politics to leave (EU contempt for popular sovereignty, obsession with further integration, inability to retreat from mistakes notably the euro etc). But I am not excited: it will be very tough for years.

In the days immediately after the result, the sabre rattling by Juncker, Schultz etc made staying in look even less attractive – punish the UK so no-one else leaves. Their vision of a Europe bound together by fear is deeply unattractive. Merkel is being very sensible. Geography will not change. We remain neighbours and need, as she says, a co-operative and constructive relationship. I agree. Once the anger and hurt subside there will be time for sensible – difficult – negotiation. Cameron etc is right to insist on a delay. The weekend felt a bit too much like August 1914 where hasty decisions and angry rhetoric risked getting everyone into a position they would rather not be in.

My wife, originally from Finland, was pro remain and is upset by the result fearing anti-foreigner sentiment. I hope and believe she has nothing to worry about. But there have been some unpleasant anti-foreigner insults. A striking instance is that at the Polish cultural and social centre, POSK, in west London where some idiots awarded it anti-Polish graffiti. This elicited a flurry of good wishes, flowers etc, from sympathetic locals and a solidarity eat in on our part (ie, we went there for dinner – no hardship since the food is both good and good value). The offence to the Poles is particularly unwelcome since Poles made so signal a contribution to fighting Nazism alongside Britain and other allies. If ever there is a group who has earned a place in UK society it’s the Poles. More history lessons required for graffitist idiots.

Flowers and Notes received by POSK following "Poles go Home" Graffiti
Flowers and Notes received by POSK following “Poles Go Home” Graffiti

I think the Brexit decision is one from which both sides will lose. Some parts of the EU more than the UK (the financial crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal have been intensified post Brexit referendum far more than the financial pain the UK has experienced). However, I think after five – admittedly very difficult – years there is a very good chance we will be fine (depending on trade negotiations with other economies – including the EU). I am not so confident about the Eurozone. And Scotland will not find it easy to join the EU after any proximate separation from the rest of the UK (Spain will block admission fearing that Catalonia will follow). So it’s a great pity to leave – the EU has made possible notable achievements as well as the failings which stimulated more than 50% of UK voters to say “no more” – but I think the least worst thing for the UK. We will see how the EU adapts.”

Richard Collins

Brexit: No Advice from this American

After working over 12 years in the UK, I was frequently amused by visiting academics from the USA (my home), who would start giving me advice about everything from the university to the UK and Europe virtually as they were walking off the plane. So I am resisting my natural US-instinct to weigh in on Brexit, and what should be done.

What I have learned from working in the UK is that this nation of nations has a wealth of brilliant people, who will inform debate on the issues arising out of Brexit and, with the civil service and Parliament, will come up with a number of sensible and pragmatic ways forward. In due course, the leadership selection process will be pivotal to arriving at one or more compelling visions for the nations and regions of the UK. The process is already progressing.

Brexit Direction Sign
Brexit Direction Sign from Facebook

I won’t end with the quote from Churchill on democracy being the worst form of government, as I prefer another familiar quote attributed to a Dick Tuck, a political dirty trickster of the Nixon era (he organized tricks against Nixon), who later became an elected politician. In giving his concession speech after losing his election for the California State Senate, he said: “The people have spoken, the bast….!” I know that my British friends would not be so vulgar, but many of my friends feel very angry over the vote. It is frightening indeed.

That said, the voters have spoken, and the people of Britain will make this work. Count on it. I – for one – will not panic. But I will follow the course of the coming debate with great interest and with much at stake in a successful outcome.

Coda

I’ve read with interest that the Prime Minister has put together a group in Whitehall to focus on Brexit. I have high expectations for them to arrive at some sensible scenarios for the next PM and government to refine and move forward with. This would be a wonderful time for the House of Lords to rise to the occasion as well. If ever the best and the brightest need to prove their worth, it is in this context.